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By Kate Bremer

Barbara, my coworker at Valley Vet Clinic, is caring for two diabetic cats at home, along with three other cats and Chester the dog. I talked with her about the special needs of a diabetic animal. Although this articles focuses on cats, diabetes mellitus can also affect dogs, ferrets, parakeets, and other animals.

Barbara’s cats are Murphy, who is 16 years old, and Casey, who is 8. Both cats were diagnosed more than a year ago, within a few weeks of each other. When Barbara noticed her cats losing weight and drinking excessively, she brought them in for checkups, which determined that they were diabetic. Other symptoms of diabetes can be weakness, lethargy, frequent urination, depression, abdominal pain, and loss of vision due to cataracts. These symptoms can also indicate other conditions and should always e checked by your veterinarian.

Diabetes is diagnosed with a test for high levels of glucose in the blood and urine. In some cases, the diagnosis is confirmed by testing for insulin levels in the blood. Sometimes other blood tests may be run to rule out diseases which may coexist with and complicate the diabetes. Once the diagnosis is made, your animal may need to be hospitalized for two to four days to determine its specific insulin requirement, as well as an appropriate feeding schedule.

Diabetes is caused by damage to the pancreas. Obesity, poor diet, genetics, hormonal abnormalities, stress, and drugs are thought to be predisposing factors for diabetes in companion animals.

I asked Barbara what the daily care of Murphy and Case y involves. She gives them a shot twice a day and makes sure they eat on time. They are given four to five small meals throughout the day to help regulate blood sugar. She feeds the cats at the time of the injections-12 hours apart at 8:30 am and 8:30 pm every day. Two or three hours later they get another small meal. While she’s at work, her parents check on the cats and give some meals. The cats eat a special high-fiber, low-fat diet recommended for diabetes.

Along with maintaining a feeding and injection schedule, your veterinarian may ask you to monitor and record urine glucose levels for your animal using a simple in-home test.

Routine is key to the care of a diabetic animal. Barbara says, “At first, before they got used to the routine, their blood sugar would go too high or too low, but now it’s more consistent.” She added, “They know their routine. When it’s time for their shots, they come to me-it’s just mealtime for them.”

In addition to the demand for consistency of feeding and exercise to regulate blood glucose level, routine is also important so the cats know what to expect and don’t get stressed. Barbara has found that stress can make the disease worse-especially with Murphy. “If his routine is interrupted,” she says, “he becomes stressed . . . t throws him off . . . he seems weaker. I try to keep everything as easy as possible.”

The owner of a diabetic animal has expenses above and beyond that of a regular companion animal: insulin, syringes, special diet, and periodic trips to the veterinarian to check glucose and insulin levels. Barbara assures me that the extra expense, time, and consistency commitment are worth it: “These are really great kitties. The relationship between you and your pets gets closer because they depend on you for their health. They realize you’re taking care f them and they appreciate that.”

In addition to emphasizing the bond that can develop between you and your diabetic animal, Barbara’s advise to someone whose animal has just been diagnosed with diabetes is to follow your doctor’s orders.

It’s helpful to have the support of friends or family in maintaining the routine of a diabetic cat. Barbara says, “I couldn’t do it alone. It’s OK to leave them alone for a few hours, but not the entire day. I have to be home on time.” She says, however, that it’s better for only one person in the household to give the injections to prevent accident over- or under-dosing of insulin.

When her parents check on the cats they are alert for signs of low blood sugar, which for Bcats can be that they get a glazed look-the eyes start to twitch, and they get weak. When that happens, they’re given food and start to feel better. Cats can have varying responses to low blood g, so that is soemthing for the individual owner to discover. It’s important to seek veterinary help if your diabetic animal shows any unusual symptoms including seizures, coma, lack of appetite, depression, deviations of normal urine glucose patter, drunken state, or cataracts.

Perhaps one of the more daunting aspects of caring for a diabetic animal is the daily injections. Barbara says, “I was apprehensive about it, but I was so anxious for them to get better that I just did it without thinking about it. I give them their food as I’m giving the shot. If I distract them with food they don’t notice.” She says, “The shots, although scary at first are not that difficult. The first few times I was afraid of hurting them, but once I got over that initial fear, it was OK.”

Although diabetic animals are susceptible to other health problems, under proper care they can lead happy, comfortable lives.

Kate Bremer is a poet, vet tech, pet sitter, and animal advocate in the Pojoaque valley.

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue.

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